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Marrone shuffles off to NFL

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ORCHARD PARK — Doug Marrone is set to try to turn around an NFL team after improving a college program down the road.

Marrone reached an agreement to become the Buffalo Bills’ new coach Sunday, three people familiar with the negotiations said. One person said the sides were still putting the finishing touches on the contract for Marrone to sign.

The people spoke on the condition of anonymity because there has not been an official announcement.

Marrone will replace Chan Gailey, who was fired Dec. 31, a day after the Bills closed their second consecutive season with a 6-10 record and extended the NFL’s longest active playoff drought to 13 seasons. The 48-year-old Marrone, who is from the Bronx, went 25-25 in four seasons at Syracuse.

ESPN.com first reported early Sunday that Marrone would be leaving the Orange to become the Bills’ next coach.

Syracuse was 26-57 over a seven-year period before Marrone took over at his alma mater. The Orange finished this season 8-5, winning six of their last seven games, including a 38-14 victory over West Virginia in the Pinstripe Bowl.

A person who had a role in hiring Marrone in Syracuse, speaking on condition of anonymity because the move had not been announced, said Orange officials had been made aware the coach was leaving for the NFL.

Now, he’s set for another challenge two hours down the New York State Thruway. He’ll be taking over a team that has not had a winning record since 2004, is on its fifth head coach since 2001, and closed last season by losing seven of its final 10 games.

The Syracuse job was Marrone’s first as a head coach. He has seven years of NFL experience; Marrone spent 2006-08 as the New Orleans Saints’ offensive coordinator and was the New York Jets’ offensive line coach from 2002-05.

Marrone’s arrival in New Orleans coincided with the Saints’ addition of Drew Brees. Though head coach Sean Payton called the plays on game day, Marrone helped oversee an offense that led the NFL in yards in 2006 and `08. In 2007, the Saints set a league record with 440 completions.

The Bills’ perennially weak offense could certainly use a boost. And he’s got work to do improving a high-priced but underachieving defense.

One of Marrone’s first decisions on offense will be determining the future of quarterback Ryan Fitzpatrick, who took a big step back in his third season as starter, and a year after signing a five-year, $59 million contract extension. Buffalo finished 19th in the NFL in yards gained and 21st in points scored this season.

Fitzpatrick, who shares the same agent as Marrone, is due a $3 million roster bonus in March.

General manager Buddy Nix has already said he plans to select a quarterback in the draft in April. He also hasn’t ruled out the possibility of acquiring one in free agency or through a trade.

One draft candidate could be Syracuse senior Ryan Nassib, who is projected to be a second- or third-round pick.

The Bills defense performed well below the high expectations that were created in March, when Buffalo signed defensive end Mario Williams to a six-year, $100 million contract. The defense instead proved porous and incohesive in finishing among the NFL’s worst. Buffalo allowed 435 points — the second-most in team history.

The Bills opened their coaching search Tuesday, when newly promoted President Russ Brandon and several executives traveled to Arizona, where they interviewed candidates. They met with former Cardinals coach Ken Whisenhunt and current Cardinals defensive coordinator Ray Horton. The Bills also interviewed Oregon coach Chip Kelly and former Bears coach Lovie Smith.

Marrone, who was hired by Syracuse in 2008 to replace Greg Robinson, had also interviewed with the Cleveland Browns for their vacancy. His name also surfaced in stories about coaching vacancies with the Eagles, Chiefs and Chargers.

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